Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Breaking Through The Perfectionist Barrier

I often blog about the progress of boys in writing and how we can break down some of the barriers for them in achieving success.

In this blog post I would like to reflect more on an affliction that often affects our girls...perfectionism and a fixed mindset.  Not to say that boys can not be equally afflicted with this disposition, but in my experience it mostly affects girls and it has the most impact on early writing  success (and maths, but you will already be aware of what we do through Number Agents to help with that.)

Perfectionism is something I hypothesize that we see in girls that have been encouraged to be 'school ready' in the way that people often think of as school ready.  This may look like knowing their alphabet, recognising words and being able to record words.  In my experience these children (usually girls) are first born and have clearly been given the message that school is about the 3 R's.  They come in with skills that are great cognitively, but lack the emotional and social dispositions that will allow them to be a successful learner.  It is like they have been fast forwarded through their natural sequence of development.

Now, if you have read my blog, you will know that this form of academic readiness is not what I believe we should be after, and it would be my opinion that this term of readiness actually forms a barrier for these girls as it defines for them what 'learning' looks like.

These girls are often people pleasers, they are quiet, love to sit safely in activities like colouring and crave and often specifically need teacher direction.  They love step by step instructions and often struggle with any form of independent or creative thinking.  They lack learning resilience and their confidence is easily knocked.   They have been told they are smart, and when they first meet a struggle or find something they can't do yet, they then believe they are dumb.

Sadly these girls often get through the first couple of years in an overly academic environment feeling successful and enjoying success.  Their safe sitting and people pleasing is rewarded in an overly  environment that praises and rewards these dispositions.  It is not until things get harder and they begin to struggle that barriers become apparent.

These girls are usually perfectionists.  Their writing will usually be pinpoint accurate, with patterns repeated over and over because they have had success with these early attempts and therefore repeat the same type of story over and over again, alternatively they may spend the whole writing session on one word as they do not know how to spell it.  

 At some stage this perfectionism in any environment will become a problem for them and when it becomes a problem it is a barrier, and when it is a barrier they struggle, and when it is a struggle they give up.

So what can we do to help these girls?

I have several ideas that I have tried this year that I have found particularly useful.

Play-Based Learning
In a play-based environment these girls become apparent straight away.  They are no longer the golden goose.  They are the children who struggle socially and emotionally, in this environment these dispositions are challenged and they learn to embrace new ones quite quickly.  They struggle straight away with self-direction and have to quickly develop dispositions that allow them success.  They develop their creative side and begin to be more resilient.  They begin to step out of their comfort zone.  In a self-directed play environment there is little direction from the teacher other than invitations or reflection.  These girls learn to self-direct, they discover their talents and passions, they explore their urges.  They also get the opportunity to see how their understandings about literacy and numeracy can help them and they begin to expand on these without the worry of being wrong.

Growth Mindset
This has been huge for us this year.  The power of yet is incredible.  Helping children and coaching them about the power of mistakes and the importance of the challenge from day one has been transformative for our learners.  By rewarding and praising the process of learning, rather than praising the product, we give these girls (and all children) the understanding that it is what we do, the dispositions we use that are important, not the finished product.
There are loads of growth mindset songs on youtube and my class particularly love the class dojo big ideas.

This year our writing is been about storytelling.  It is out loud and in picture form, long before it is written down.  We spend a lot of time retelling, loads of time describing, they are rewarded for creativity, taking their time, having a go, generating their own ideas.  There are no story starters, no inane sentences that children begin to use out of habit ...the good old "I went to the beach" is gone.  Out of that children begin to add the written word naturally, without being asked, they learn that those earlier skills they have are of benefit to them now, but it need not be perfect.

Inventive Spelling
Whilst this is something I have always encouraged, I have never used the word inventors with children.  This year I have given the status of 'inventor' high priority.  Children learn early on that I just want them to invent words using what they currently know about letters and sounds.  This is liberating for children, the success is focused on having a go and using the letters and sounds they know.  The power of really working away at 'nutting' out what a word may look like gives the brain an absolute workout and can not be underplayed.  Alongside our phonics teaching we encourage inventing and we have a special time in the day for it.  The reward is in the inventing, not in the spelling.  Children are more capable than ever of writing stories that can be read and are not hung up on spelling.  For those perfectionist girls they have learned that their is more success in being an inventor, at having a go at tricky words than there is in producing a perfect sentence.  They are much more inclined to write more.  In fact one lovely girl, just today took our eggs from the planet Rong (from our mantle) for a walk.  She then sat down and wrote two pages about lovely to see.
At no stage do we make a mark on their writing and we do not correct their invented spelling.  We will use common patterns we see for further reflection if needed (just in time teaching.)

I feel like the changes we have made this year have greatly assisted the girls that would have previously been seen as perfectionists.

Now we just need to transform what parents see as school ready, so we don't have anything to 'undo' in the first place.  Now that is another blog post. :)

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